Remember 'The Cooler' with William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin? After sneaking into theaters in 2003, critics labeled it the indie release of the year and heaped praise upon its writer and director, Wayne Kramer. As you can imagine, expectations for Kramer's next film were extremely high and people were curious to see where his knack for naturalistic writing would take him. Strangely, his next effort jettisoned the style, tone, and quality of 'The Cooler' in favor of gritty gangsters, banal dialogue, and hyperkinetic visuals. 'Running Scared' (not to be confused or associated with the 1986 film of the same name starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal) is a violent assault on the senses -- a parade of the grotesque that offers screaming bullets and aimless f-bombs in place of properly developed character motivation or plot developments.
Paul Walker plays Joey Gazelle, a bottom-rung mobster who's told to dispose of a handgun that was used to kill corrupt police officers during a botched drug deal. After hiding the weapon in his basement, Joey's world comes undone when his son's ten-year-old friend, Oleg (Cameron Bright), steals the gun and uses it to shoot his abusive stepfather. As the gun is subsequently passed between every level of lowlife the city has to offer, Joey is suddenly forced to protect his son, keep his marriage together, save Oleg, find the gun, outwit a dirty cop (Chazz Palminteri), avoid the Russian mobsters connected to Oleg's dead stepfather, and deal with his own inner demons -- all in the course of one night.
As nauseatingly visceral as 'Running Scared' tends to be, it requires a great deal of patience to watch. Every situation is pushed so far over the top and so far to the extreme that I often found myself searching for any point or redeeming value to the film. Characters are little more than caricatures of tough-talking, bullet slinging thugs, and their interactions are laughable at best. Most of the actors seem to scream their lines, scowl as much as possible, and leap from one insane reaction to the next. Worst of all, between the script and Walker's performance, Joey is crafted into a terribly unsympathetic character -- when a left-turn ending comes out of nowhere, I was too distracted by how abusive he was with Oleg and his own son to care.
The driving force behind 'Running Scared' seems to be violence for the sake of violence. A weary score, a bizarre subplot involving child molestation, and a somber tone would seem to suggest that Kramer has layered the film with a pseudo-commentary on the manner in which violence affects people. The only problem is that he seems to imply that a criminal loses his humanity simply by sheer exposure to the violence inherent in his environment. In other uber-violent action flicks like 'Crank,' at least it's possible to justify relentless action and bloodshed since they're used to up their film's entertainment value. In this case, however, Kramer does little more than preach to the masses with an unfocused and indiscernible message that no one but his cast seems equipped to understand.
As it stands, I'm sure a lot of people will enjoy 'Running Scared' as another quick fix of mobster fare, but I thought it was drivel. While there are some fairly interesting action beats here and there, 'Running Scared' has a debilitating distaste for its own characters and never breaks free from its overwhelmingly cynical exploration of humanity and its struggles. It's honestly a bit of a buzz kill, especially since the film shares a passing resemblance to mindless crowd-pleasers like 'Crank,' 'The Transporter,' and 'The Fast and the Furious' series. Maybe I just missed the point, but someone would have to put a gun to my head to get me to sit through this one again.
This Blu-ray import offers fans an impressive 1080p/VC-1 transfer that's identical to its German HD DVD counterpart. Colors are bold, inky blacks give the picture nice depth, and impressive texture and detail create a convincing three dimensional image. Most of the film's scenes take place at night, but the visuals rarely grow murky in the shadows. Instead, deep yellows, browns, and blues seep across the screen and keep things vibrant and luminous. Better still, the source is in great shape and only suffers from a smattering of white flecks throughout the presentation. I didn't catch any instances of artifacting, macroblocking, or black crush and found myself enjoying the technical quality of the transfer from beginning to end.
Unfortunately, there are a few minor problems. Slight color banding randomly makes an appearance, contrast is often overblown, and a few shots are soft compared to others. 'Running Scared' is also plagued by thick grain clouds that are so prevalent they became distracting. I normally have a lot of love and patience with intentional grain, but the downside here is that the film's high-def presentation looks as if salt and pepper have been slapped across the image. The resulting sea of speckles appears in intermittent waves, leaving the picture in a state of constant distress and unpredictability. While intentional grain doesn't warrant a reduction in score, viewers should still know what to expect.
All things considered, fans of the film won't be disappointed by the film's treatment on this import disc, and those looking for a nice upgrade to the standard DVD won't feel as if they've wasted their money. While the visuals on the DVD are already pretty good, they can't compare to the sharpness of this transfer.
While I no longer have access to the German HD DVD for a proper comparison, I was really impressed with the audio package EMS produced for this newer Blu-ray release. Instead of replicating the standard DTS-HD mix from the HD DVD, the Blu-ray edition of 'Running Scared' features a beefy DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that matches the intensity of the on-screen action. First off, the film's dialogue is crisply represented, well prioritized, and evenly distributed across the front of the soundfield. It seems slightly unnatural and chaotic at times, but I got the distinct impression the effect was intentional. Ambiance is strong, the LFE channel is frequently involved in every aspect of the soundscape, and the rear channels are utilized on a regular basis. Even so, the track's strong point is its dynamic range -- low-end tones add serious weight to on-screen action, while treble tones are solid and stable. The music tends to overpower, as frenetic and dissonant chords invade the mix, but the sharp instrumentation is balanced effeciently enough to keep things amiable.
My only real issue with the sound designer's mix is that gunshots, explosions, and line delivery are launched at the listener with equal bombast. I'm sure the audible assault was designed to ramp up the impact of certain effects, but it tends to leave the already exaggerated soundscape feeling slightly crowded and busy. Like the transfer's artificially sharpened grain, this design decision made it a bit difficult to totally immerse myself in the world of the film. Still, the sound package on this import is certainly impressive enough to please fans everywhere. It offers a more substantial upgrade from the domestic DVD than the HD DVD import, and delivers a powerful track that should draw attention (or complaints) from everyone else in the house.
While the German HD DVD has a commentary track, a collection of storyboard comparisons, and a photo montage, and the domestic DVD has additional featurettes and goodies, this German Blu-ray import doesn't have any special features. Anyone looking for a definitive version of 'Running Scared' will just have to wait for New Line to release the title stateside.
While I'd rather strip my skin off with a potato peeler than watch 'Running Scared' a second time, fans of the in-your-face film will be excited to know that this Blu-ray import has a faithful, proficient video transfer and an aggressive DTS HD Master Audio surround track. In fact, the only real downside is that this particular release doesn't include any of the supplemental content included on the German HD DVD and domestic DVD. Ultimately, impatient fans won't be disappointed, newcomers should check out the film itself long before they drop cash on an import, and completists should wait for New Line to bring the title to the States.
Thanks to Alex Wyles for providing this import disc for review!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.